HOT SPRINGS -- This city known for its towers recognized a milestone in mid-April of the 100th anniversary of the construction of St. John the Baptist Church.
The anniversary Mass April 13 celebrated by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor also included several priests familiar to the parish, including pastor Father James West and associate pastor Father Alan Rosenau.
Visitors also took advantage of an open house in the church April 14, 100 years to the day that the building was finished.
After the end of Mass, Bishop Taylor announced the retirement of Father William Thomas as pastor of nearby St. Mary of the Springs Church and Father Innocent I. Okore of Malvern as the new pastor at St. Mary.
St. John Church organized in 1908. That is the same year that the Sisters of Mercy started St. John School. The cornerstone for the present church was placed on Oct. 10, 1910. Parishioners saw the completion of the church building on April 14, 1912.
Some interesting stories and legends abound about the church.
One of the more common legends that persists has to do with the location of the church and its prior use. Geographically, the church stands upon a hill that commands a view of several miles in every direction. Pioneers knew it as a landmark on the Hot Springs-Mount Ida Road. In the mid-1800s, it was the location of a cemetery for people who couldn't afford a funeral.
All of the graves were removed prior to the construction of St. John Church. However, a local tall tale persists that some of the graves remain under the church. The legend is attributed to a misunderstanding of Catholic teaching. Catholic churches are required to have the relic of a saint placed in the altar. Father West confirmed there aren't any indigent graves under the altar.
A true story is that former President Theodore Roosevelt visited Hot Springs on the day that the cornerstone was placed, Oct. 10, 1910. President Roosevelt arrived on a morning train and spent part of the day at Oaklawn Park. In St. Louis the next day, President Roosevelt said he was "dee-lighted" to visit Hot Springs.
It is unknown whether the president was aware of the cornerstone placed that day.
Over the decades since, the church building saw new neighbors appear in the form of a school, additions, the gymnasium and expanded parking lots.
During one of those expansions, a Civil War era cannonball was discovered. As reported by Arkansas Catholic, it is one of few surviving pieces of evidence that soldiers fought here.
However, the focus this year has been on the steadfast structure where people have now prayed for one century.
Gene Powell couldn't say enough about its beauty. "I forgot what a magnificent little church they have over there. The ceiling and the walls and the decorations. I can't imagine what went into it when they built it," he said.
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